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The Nose Knows: Smell Disorders
February 19, 2013
Some of my favorite smells are a Christmas tree, chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, and freshly cut pumpkins at Halloween — I can’t imagine not being able to smell these delightful things. But according to the National Institutes of Health, between 1% and 2% of people in North America say they have a smell disorder. About 25% of men age 60–69 and 11% of women in this same age range have difficulty being able to smell.
Not being able to smell, either somewhat or at all, can be dangerous, as our noses alert us to smells that can signal danger, such as a fire, a gas leak, or spoiled food. It can also be a sign of a serious medical problem.
How our sense of smell works
Smells reach these sensory neurons through our nostrils and also through our the roof of our throats. When we eat, scents are released that reach the sensory neurons. This is why taste is so closely connected to our sense of smell. Think of when you have a cold or allergies and your nose is all stuffed up: you can’t smell much of anything, and the food that you eat seems to have no flavor. Or it tastes like paste.
We also have nerve endings in our eyes, nose, mouth, and throat that can detect more irritating smells, like onion, ammonia, or peppermint.
Causes of smell disorders
There are many possible causes of smell disorders, including the following:
• Nasal polyps
According to one neurologist, about half of people with diabetes have a diminished sense of both smell and taste.
Diagnosing a smell disorder
Treating smell disorders
Unfortunately, smell disorders can’t always be treated. The damage to nerve cells from head injury or radiation can’t be treated. A loss of smell from various medical conditions may not be able to be treated, either.
In the meantime, you may be able to protect and even enhance your sense of smell, according to an article published in last week’s Wall Street Journal. In the article, Dr. Alan Hirsch, the director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, describes using “sniff therapy.” He says to choose three or four different pleasant scents, like a floral scent from a shampoo, a fruity scent from a piece of fruit, and one or two other scents, like vanilla extract or coffee. Don’t choose anything irritating, like an onion. Sniff these scents four to six times a day to get those nasal scent receptors working. Also, take the time to eat slowly and chew your food well. Doing so can release more flavor from food.
Talk to your health-care provider if you think you’ve lost some or all of your ability to smell. It’s important to rule out any serious causes and also to explore treatment options.
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